Abel Sanchez & Other Stories

by Miguel de Unamuno

8/10 (Talky)

This is the first book I’ve read of Unamuno’s and it reminded me strongly of his German contemporary Herman Hesse (particularly of two of the stories from Klingsors letzter Sommer, and to a lesser extent Steppenwolf and Narcissus and Goldmund). There were also veins that Camus would later mine, especially in The Fall. Those are the frames of reference I brought to these three unique stories that made them seem pleasantly familiar.

Unamuno’s subject matter is decidedly psychological, the action of these stories taking place primarily in the heads of their chief characters. Yet he is equally preoccupied with philosophy, theology and morality. I read the stories chronologically (“Madness of Doctor Montarco” followed by “Abel Sanchez” and then “San Manuel Bueno”) to be able to better appreciate Unamuno’s development. And I always read the introduction last, a habit I recommend to others as well since you can only appreciate a commentary on something after you’ve read that something. . . one of my perpetual gripes with the entire publishing tradition : )

All of the stories deal with exceptional individuals who struggle to reconcile their compulsions to self-expression with the perceptions of society (“Abel” takes a somewhat different path). Dr. Montarco is a superb physician who needs to release his maniacal urges through subversive literature, facing distastrous consequences when stymied. Joaquín Monegro is a superb physician who is tormented by the easy fortune of his lifelong friend Abel Sanchez. Don Manuel is a superb priest who sacrifices himself in order to satisfy the needs of his parishioners. You get the feeling that all of these protagonists are autobiographical, and they each deal with different sins, perhaps progressing as Unamuno did over his life: the sin of pride early on, followed by envy, and finally loss of faith.

The richness of these stories revolves around these three moral dilemmas, and there is much to consider and decide with respect to each one. The apparent message of the last story is particularly depressing, that religion should be the opium of the masses, that this is a righteous path. I disagree. For happiness, yes, this would be correct, because ignorance is bliss. But I don’t believe that happiness is the most important thing in life.

The stories are very thought-provoking and suffer in enjoyability only because there is so little action. The goings-on are all related as conversations or inner monologues. But still, the man has impressed me and I look forward to reading Niebla next.

Still, the most impressive aspect of Unamuno remains the quote that first brought his name to my attention, when in 1936 he replied to a fascist speech by General Millán-Astray at the university where he would later have to resign. This is what he said:

You are waiting for my words. You know me well, and know I cannot remain silent for long. Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent. . . But now I have heard this insensible and necrophilous oath, “¡Viva la Muerte!”, and I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent. General Millán-Astray is a cripple. There is no need for us to say this with whispered tones. He is a war cripple. So was Cervantes. But unfortunately, Spain today has too many cripples. And, if God does not help us, soon it will have very many more. It torments me to think that General Millán-Astray could dictate the norms of the psychology of the masses. A cripple, who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes, hopes to find relief by adding to the number of cripples around him.

[Millán-Astray responded, “¡Muera la inteligencia! ¡Viva la Muerte!” (“Death to intelligence! Long live death!”), provoking applause from the Falangists.]

[Unamuno continued] This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. You are profaning its sacred domain. You will win, because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken.

He was escorted to safety by Franco’s wife, and then removed from his post at the University of Salamanca. He died 10 weeks later.

Thus anything I read by Unamuno will be colored by my knowledge that the man was a bonafide hero.

Original Review


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